What You Talk About When You Talk About Fascism

Fascism is like science fiction and revolution: people feel free to make statements about it without ever really asking what it is.

Nick Harkaway
Nov 18, 2016 · 6 min read

Fascism per se doesn’t have a holy book the way Marxism has Das Kapital. Mein Kampf is Hitler’s bible, of course, but Nazism is a (particularly noxious) sub-category. Although Fascism and Marxism occupy opposing slots in the history of the 20th Century, and although Marxism spawned its own totalitarian movements (Leninism, Stalinism and so on) the two -isms are not really the same sort of object. Marxism is in the first instance cognitive, a response to an analysis; Fascism is a mood as much as a form of government.

That’s not to say that Fascism doesn’t have recognisable characteristics. There’s the merger of state and corporate power into a single edifice of production which notionally can achieve anything; the urge to nationalism and the glorification of the military and of military strength through a powerful propaganda apparatus; there is pageantry and a nostalgic appeal to a golden age to be reclaimed; the vilification and persecution of minority groups and the suppression of dissent; the elevation of a dictator to the status of father/god and of his consort or some other suitable player to mother/goddess; the voluntarist claim that the people — manifested as the state — can achieve anything, unless prevented by naysayers and sabotage; the concomitant creation of a deep apparatus of surveillance and control which coopts citizens into its working; the effective worship of the state, the fervid quasi-religious adoration of the form of government and the ideals and practice of Fascist society, sometimes through an existing and complicity state church which perhaps joins corporate power in subsumption under the Fascist banner; and the vision of a simple and often pastoral life uncluttered by modern ideas and urban humanity, which segues smoothly into a patriarchal structure in which female agency and sexuality are safely locked away in the hands of men — and any non-heterosexual relations are vanished and banished so that they don’t complicate the binary dynamic of Man Want/Man Grab and Woman Display/Woman Submit.

Dietrich’s iconic moment in Morocco (1930), unthinkable in Fascist cinema only a few years later.

To my eye, this last part is always the most ambiguous — the burning machismo of Fascism, its obsession with monumental architecture both phallic and kleitoral, its muscular bromanticism and its richly perverse mixture of uniform and punishment, is indicative of a boiling sexual energy and angst which ultimately touches its every aspect and would make its claims bankrupt if they were not already so. Because that is Fascism’s final truth: it is a shared delusion, not a functioning country, and it is in the attempt to stave off the revelation of this fact that it becomes most brutal. If ostracising scapegoats cannot deliver prosperity, then they must still be conspiring and should be imprisoned. If that won’t do it, extradition and execution are the only things that will make up for the deep damage they must have done. Distract, distract, distract. Wilhelm Reich, of course, maintained that Fascism existed as a consequence or symptom of sexual repression, so it’s not as if my instinct is exactly breaking news. Still, I did blink a little at this from Johann Hari:

The twisted truth is that gay men have been at the heart of every major fascist movement that ever was — including the gay-gassing, homo-cidal Third Reich. With the exception of Jean-Marie Le Pen, all the most high-profile fascists in Europe in the past thirty years have been gay […] Dutch fascist Pim Fortuyn ran on blatantly racist anti-immigrant platform, describing Islam as “a cancer” and “the biggest threat to Western civilisation today.” Yet with two little fluffy dogs and a Mamma complex, he was openly, flamboyantly gay. When accused by a political opponent of hating Arabs, he replied, “How can I hate Arabs? I sucked one off last night.”

Fascism is not (no pun intended) straightforward. It is a strange destination arrived at by indirect routes — and that’s why I’m bothering to write this on a Friday morning when I really do have a lot of other things to take care of. Because no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

In the 21st Century, reactionary movements and counter-revolutions have taken on new forms. The Red Army Faction is yesterday’s news. Today, terrorism is protean and distributed. Al Qaeda was or is a decentralised mood-entity which invited self-organising local franchises and individual efforts. Daesh/ISIS is a similar thing, combining a land grab and a conventional insurgency with an international self-iterating element. (John Gray is fascinating on Bin Laden and his Modern influences, and indeed on Qtub in the same connection.)

Which raises the possibility that the kind of Fascism described by Eco and others from the experience of the 20th Century — in which a movement empowers a dictator to create the structural apparatus of Fascism in the state — may not be the kind we deal with now. It seems entirely conceivable for Fascism to precipitate from the societal solution, to be first distributed and then emergent, so that one has first the apparatus and then the leader, rather than the other way around.

It seems possible in the UK at the moment to achieve the appearance of near-unanimity in the media on some issues. The mood is clear enough. This isn’t a government operation, though it may be an editorial or publishing decision. Is it political or profit-motivated? Is there a difference?

Enemies of the People
Britain Is Full

It seems quite possible that we might be able to arrive at a place where our societies ticks all the boxes of Fascism without ever actually acknowledging it. Dwight Eisenhower, Republican President of the US, spoke in 1961 with passion of the dangers of a Military-Industrial Complex. He was a former soldier who had served in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars, but he was deeply concerned about the damage that might be done to American democracy by the incorporation into political and cultural life of such a force.

It’s hard not to share his concern, especially looking at the revolving door between technology, media, government, finance and industry at the very top of the world. There’s no conspiracy. There just aren’t very many gaps any more between the different parts of the machinery. The one aspect of the state that is left out, for the most part, is the judiciary — increasingly described as rogue and activist for simply doing what it is supposed to do.

The Brexit debate, along with the Trump campaign, was full of nostalgia and rose-tinted history. Both asserted they would return a nation to a state of greatness, without ever actually explaining when that was or what it would mean in practice. Again, it’s a mood, not an agenda. Both of them also — as with various populist movements around the world — scapegoated foreigners and minorities and promised to restore a lost masculinity. Both are already complaining of spoilers and saboteurs “talking down” the new administration, effectively consigning criticism to fifth columnism. The idea of this group in charge of the surveillance apparatus created and sustained by supposedly liberal leaders bent on securing the populace against infiltration by terror cells is frightening.

When we talk about Fascism, we have to mean more than “things I do not like”. Monstrous acts may be committed without a society being Fascist. Wars may be waged, assassinations carried out. Statecraft and government in a world still far from emerged from the Imperial age are ugly.

Fascism is something else: a way of doing things that is premised on fantasy, rage and self-delusion, which inevitably blames others for the failure of promises which could never be fulfilled. That makes it appallingly dangerous. Where it rises, it has to be fought.

So what I want to ask you is this: how close are we to ticking every box on the Fascist checklist — each perfectly independently of the others — except for the overt acceptance of Fascism? And when we have them all, is that last step even required, or is a New Distributed Fascism functionally the same as a declared one?

Nick Harkaway

Written by

Author - homepage at http://www.nickharkaway.com.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade